#15 Hemali Shah - Ignorance On Fire

Hemali Shah is the founder and managing director of City One Tourism & Travel. She was a beautician for a good chunk of her life in Mumbai before it call came crumbling down when her family moved to Uganda...



I started, people didn't want you to talk to me because I'm a lady. They were talking to my husband. Can we talk to you? What will we talk to madam. And for my son? He's a kid. What I can talk to them. Now nobody can say of course. 


That was Hemali Shah, the founder and managing director of City One Tourism and Travel which is based out of Dubai. She talks her through her first income at the age of twelve. How she started giving henna classes at 17, got engaged at 18 and established a name for herself in India as a leading beautician before it all came crumbling down. When her family went to Uganda. That wasn't the end though. That was just the beginning. This is her story.


Hello. Hello. I'm Aamer Khan, and this is Zed Medium podcast. A podcast that talks to people and about them too. We take out the most significant experiences of an individual and package it in the form of a story, sharing those with you. 


We narrate people's journeys in the simplest way we can. There's a new person every episode. So do check out the previous ones. I'm sure you'll find someone to relate to. Let's start with this one, shall we? Hemali’s journey is far from the ordinary and to dive deeper into it we've got to go back to a middle class household in the 1970s in Mumbai. Hemali is the second of four children, three of them being girls. 


And in those times the school fees of a girl child was subsidized. So in the second grade it was Rs2. 3rd grade, RS3, 4th grade RS4 and so on. Simpler times. Simpler not necessarily the best of times. She was considered privileged because of a fairer skin compared to her other siblings, which goes without saying, was outright bad. 


But she didn't pay much attention to it. She didn't gloat over it. She encouraged her sisters and the people around her. All she cared about at that time was her education. She loved reading and every time she visited her grandfather in Surat she would go out to the library he owned. She would take a book from there and spend her vacation consuming knowledge. And she put that knowledge to good use. 


It is an understatement to say that Hemali has one of the finest business minds out there. From a very young age she's been involved in all sorts of activities. She used to assemble necklaces and garlands, moved on to learning henna and gave out classes later on, she never stopped. She kept on going.


Hemali: In ten standard no, in seven standard I started earning, but at that time they've got some colored stone and I could put it in a garland. And one garland, if you put, you get 75%. So at twelve years of age exactly, I remembered I got Rs12 in my hand. So in ten standard, when everybody is talking about movies actors I had my first order of hena. So in between practical exam I gave my first order and in 11th grade I started my mehendi classes. And the best part is my father didn't know about it. Why? Because he believed very strongly that girl child should not earn. I am there, whatever you need, I am capable to fulfill your needs. 


Aamer: Well, that was the mentality back then, but we said Hemali's journey was far from the ordinary and we definitely meant it. Well, she met the man of her dreams as soon as she entered high school, 11th grade at the age of 17 the families got together, shelled out a couple of reasons for them to get married and so they were engaged at 18 and soon got married at the age of 19. Fun fact, they both went to the same college. 


She completed her BCom from Hinduja College and commerce was pretty much an obvious choice given her knack of doing business. Marriage obviously didn't stop her from doing what she truly wanted and her in laws, especially her mother in law was very supportive during that time. 


Hemali: But I don't know what is the definition of mother in law? She was very supportive and whenever if I talk about my life and if I'm not mentioning about her, it will be incomplete because at 16 years of age you have seen somebody today also I would see her, I respect her and I'm not as strong as her. I've learned from her a lot of things. I was not organized at all, I've learned how to run the house, very strong headed person, resilient. 


Aamer: Would you say she was a kind of mentor, a big business? 


Hemali: Yeah, 100% though she was not working but the way she was taking care of her house, she was my mentor. Without her I would have not been what I am today and that was the blessing for me. My mother in law was very supportive and I never stopped working. 


So after marriage I started learning beautician. I just took one time money for that course of beautician but every time I was earning and I was buying things for myself so every time I go I earn something from waxing, from manicure pedicure, like small things and that's how every time when I was learning, every time I was learning something new from there I went to that facial stage. Then I started learning bridal dressing, then I was taking brides, then afterwards I was teaching beauty on your own, henna, on your own. 


Aamer: There's a trend that I'm noticing that you tend to teach yourself stuff as you go along. For anybody who wants to start their own thing, what is the best advice you would give them? 


Hemali: Now what I learned is ignorance on fire is better than knowledge on ice. For me, I was ignorant, I didn't know what to expect, I didn't talk much that I want to stand on my own feet. Now I have to run my house. I wanted to do it so that fire was there and that kept me going. 


And if anybody wants to do something, don't think much. Do it. Overthinking does kill a lot of ideas. Will it work? Will it not work? What will people say? How am I going to go about it? 


Aamer: Hemali didn't have all of these problems. She used her ignorance and the desire to do something and went ahead with it, not giving a damn about anything else. She was a beautician for a very long time, eventually mentioning that she went into bridal dressing, basically getting brides ready for the wedding. 


And no doubt it's a pretty important day, so people would pay money and it would be good for business. But Hemali's emotions played a bigger role in moving from offering services like manicure paddock to eventually dressing brides. And the reason for the addition to services was because she didn't like the way she looked and felt on her wedding day. 


Hemali: And it also came away from where, when I got married, the same auntie where I learned that henna when I earned that money Rs12, she dressed me up. I was very happy. I didn't know much about it, but I was very nice to get married and to know that, no, I want something like this, or I want something like that. I took the same thing that when I was not happy as a bride, I will not allow any bride to be unhappy. 


And I was going out of my way. And the way I was giving them the trial session, I was advising them. They were so relaxed. And that's how I made my name, because I was doing with patience. It's a simple strategy. You take a problem that exists in the market and fix it. Fix it so well, in fact, that you get word of mouth promotion and your business takes off. 


Aamer: No marketing, no out there campaigns, just people recommending her because they loved her simplicity and her ability to make people feel comfortable. It was all going well for her. She was known she was doing her business, she was taking care of her family. Her husband, who was in the family business, was a visionary as well. 


He saw that the business he was in wasn't going to sustain and so started looking for opportunities elsewhere. One of the places was Africa, but little did they know that bad times were near. Uganda was a roller coaster ride for the both of them. And to find out more, let's hear it from Hemali: herself. 


Hemali: So he started doing exports to Africa, which was in Congo. The situation happened that he could not trust the partner so well, and then he had to go there, to Congo. Now I had to choose whether to stay with him or to stay in India with my children. So I kept my son in the boarding school and I went to Uganda. 


Aamer: That was for how many years? In between? 


Hemali: In 2003, I shifted two years almost. I stayed there. But we were being cheated. We were being cheated. And there was a time that I did not have the money for my son's school fees. Okay. 


Aamer: What happened in Uganda? Can you please explain? 


Hemali: The thing happened that the partner was collecting money, so money was not coming in and he had taken the money. So there was a time when they broke up with the partnership. We were in bed, far from home and with the idea of not looking back. They were cheated by their own business partners in Uganda and that set them back a few years. They were at a level where they were supposed to start from the very beginning. 


Aamer: And the story of that downside doesn't end here. It goes on to something horrific that happened to them in Uganda. But first we'll talk about how her stay in Uganda was very different from the life she had in Mumbai. The culture change was an experience of its own. 


She went from a place where everyone knew her by name to a place where she basically was a nobody. 


Hemali: I made my name in Mumbai. He used to pick up the phone. People used to call me elderly, people used to call me Hemali:ji. In short, I made name. I had my fame, but I had to leave everything. And when I went there, I was nobody there. Nobody. Not a single person knew me. It's totally different when you change the country. It's totally different environment, different mindset, different culture. 


Aamer: So what are some of the culture shocks that you had over there? 


Hemali: First of all, it was so difficult to go with match their pace, because in Mumbai the light is very fast and Uganda is like very slow. How are you? It took me a long time, but yeah, I was helping my husband and they were all boys were there, so I was helping him. I was going with them. 


There was one boy, I taught him how to drive, so I got involved there. 


Aamer: She always found something or the other to do. Wherever she was, she kept herself busy. Uganda was a different environment entirely and was not only the partner cheating them that made this the worst time of their lives. So here's the horrific incident for you. 


Hemali:, her husband and her young daughter, a young baby daughter was staying in a villa. And the idea of a gated community was not applicable in Uganda at that time. So while Hemali: was cooking dinner one night, the family heard loud bangs at the door. They were startled. They were not expecting anybody anyway. They opened the door and standing there were three men with guns in their hands. 


They were about to be robbed at gunpoint. Hemali: came from the kitchen to see who it was and she saw them. She was shocked. But internally, they told her to stay still and to tell them where all the valuables in the house were. She didn't care. She really didn't care. All she could think about was that the gas was lit and her food was about to be burned. She just didn't think that. She told them. What was surprising is that they allowed her. She went back, switched the gas off, and directed them to the wrong room, an empty room. 


After they found nothing, they searched the entire house, found the jewelry and other valuables, packed them, took the car keys, left Hemali: and a family $100, only $100, and drove off in their very own car. And that's how their time in Uganda came to an end. Hemali left for the US. And her husband, who always saw a future in Dubai, left for the UAE to set things up over there. 


Hemali: I told you I did not have the okay. Nobody in my family knows that exactly what we were facing. But they all knew that it is our badtime. That's all. My sister called me to US and she told me that, sister, you come here. You can get settled here within six months. So I went with my young daughter, and I got a job in salon there. I stayed there the way I work there. The salon owner offered me that I can be her partner in the next alone. 


It's not about the work. It's about the mindset, because there also that was my first job in my life. And I literally had when I got the job, I had tears in my eyes. Not with the joy, because in Mumbai I was driving BMW. I was very well settled. And suddenly this kind of a thing has happened in my mind. I've always thought in our blood, we say that we are business people, that business is in our DNA. 


And something has happened in my younger age. So I decided that I will never work under someone. She told me that, Hemali, when you have some time, we can clean. And I've never done it. She immediately realized. And she told me, don't worry. Even me and my husband my husband also comes to the salon. Even he does the same thing. 


Aamer: Well, to all the people who are listening to this outside India, yes, Hemali had domestic help in her house. The culture in India as compared to the Western countries is very different. And some things come as a culture shock. One of them was doing stuff at home or at work, doing your own stuff. In the US, everyone does their own work. If you own the store, you're responsible for running it. If you own a salon, be it a partner or another hairdresser, you had to clean the place yourself. And that idea doesn't particularly sit well with a lot of Indians, especially the ones who are at an age and stage where they are comfortable with a certain life. 


She eventually didn't take the partnership. Times were tough and she had to go back to India to sell her house. She sold that and came to the UAE to her husband where she contributed in setting up the house over there. The Shah family had traveled to three continents in a period of three years. Each time the culture was different, the people were different, the lifestyle was different. But the one thing that remained the same was the mindset. And that was the mindset of resilience and never giving up.


Hemali: Being very honest from us, I shifted to UAE. Again, a culture difference. So that is very fast. This is in medial space. You cannot compare any country with any other country because it is a continent difference. Different mindset. Yeah. It took me some time, but I got immediate job. I had my house. I got a job in Abu Dhabi. I didn't know. What is Abu Dhabi? How far is Abu Dhabi? I asked the person that, how far is Abu Dhabi? And he told me yeah, it is just 1 hour you can reach. 


I said yeah. In Mumbai. So we used to travel 1 hour, it's okay. And I went for a job interview and she said how you will travel to Abu Dhabi? I said it's a mindset. I will think I'm going for a long drive. But truly, I did it. And I got the job in VLC in Abu Dhabi. It's a beauty center. I made the room as spa room in a medical center. I also learned I became a laser therapist. I learned chemical peeling. I learned a lot of things and I was writing articles. 


So that was my first another move in my life. I was handling the department. And then I realized that from a jamaand to Abu Dhabi I can't travel on a daily basis. So I stayed as a paying guest in somebody's house and my young daughter was staying. 


Aamer: So you were as a paying guest and you used to work six days, five days a week? Six. Six days a week. And what was your salary then? Do you remember? 


Hemali: Yeah, I've kept it 3000. 


Aamer: A salary of 3000 on conversion to Rupees would look like a lot but given the cost of living in UAE, it really isn't enough. Hemali: couldn't be tied down to a job for long enough though she definitely gained the experience, enjoyed the work and still is friends with her colleagues over there. But there was an itch that needed scratching and the only thing that separated her from starting something of her own was a good idea. 


But she couldn't have gotten a good idea at the job in the medical center and so she quit regardless. She was and is quite a risk taker. But she was only unemployed for two months after that because one fine day the idea finally dawned on her. She had finally found her dream. And I realized my dream. What was my dream as a child? 


Hemali: I told you that when I was traveling from Mumbai to Surat and how I was traveling, traveling by train, looking outside the window and dreaming, traveling the whole world. My another incidence was when I was in Africa. I was traveling from Uganda to Congo. Now here with my small child, I was traveling by cargo plane where there is no toilet, 4 hours flight and people were being pushed outside the aircraft from their so called seat, which is their bags. 


Though they have paid the money because the flight was overloaded that time. I have thought that I will never if I can, I will never allow someone to suffer like this. And those dreams we reconnected those dots and thought of the travel company and we started in 2011. So the travel company was being born. 


Aamer: What did your services include at that point of time when you first started? 


Hemali: That time we thought we don't have to work so hard. My husband had a project so that time we could do Dubai visas and we earn enough money. But we took three cars and a small office. So my husband said, okay, go and sit in the office. I said what I will do. I don't have any work. He said, if you will go sit there, then the work will come. I started, people didn't want you to talk to me because I'm a lady. 


They were talking to my husband. Can we talk to you? What we will talk to Madam. And for my son, he's a kid. What? I can talk to them now. Nobody can say, of course. So we started with three people. But again, learning Aamer, it's about when you start something in your life and if you keep on moving with the same thing, if you are consistent, yeah, the result comes and then the result is there. 


Right now we have 28 staff after Pandemic. We have two offices. We have completed ten years and we have achieved many awards. We have established our company in Georgia, we are in Uganda and we are planning to open in Egypt. 


Aamer: The idea of a woman running the show back in the day was taken lightly. It was her idea, it was her setup, it was her hard work. And yet it was all overlooked because of her gender. Did she care? No. Did she rise above it all and make city One tourism and Travel one of the best travel agencies in the UAE? Yes. And she did that by building her business slowly but effectively. She admitted, however, that in the beginning, because of a lack of experience, she didn't know how to lead a team. 


She was too bossy, micromanage her employees and didn't know the slightest bit of workplace culture. But if you're that resilient in starting your own organization, the universe finds ways of helping you out. And that's when she came across BNI Business Network International. That was her turning point. 


That was her transition from a boss to a leader.


Hemali: I was a boss, I invested. And I had a vision that I want to start. So that gave me a title of boss. Now this was for the first time I was a boss. And you know, people hate boss. If I would know certain things, my period of being a boss would have been less. Being joining Business Network International, that was a big turning point for me. 


What happens as an entrepreneur, as a business owner, we feel lonely at top. We can't discuss what we are facing on a day to day basis. So the seat, which looks very nice from outside, it looks like people think, see, this person is sitting here and his life is best. But when you sit there, you will realize that how hot that seat is. 


When I joined Business Network International, I became a part of it. I met so many business owners means I met like minded people. Everybody feels the same thing, lonely at all. And there where I understood that we can help each other. So we started helping each other, all the entrepreneurs. So your transition from a boss to a leader was in BMA. And what a leader she has been since. 


Aamer: Not to say there weren't any failures on her journey. There definitely were. And a more recent example of what could have been the end of the business was covered. COVID had hit the travel industry the most. Flights were minimal. If any people were too scared to get out of their homes, let alone travel overseas to another country entirely. And society one, tourism and travel could have really taken a hit. 


But if you're leading from the front, you've got to come up with ways of sustaining the business while doing good for the economy and the people around you. She found a way to make sure the business was up and running during this truly difficult time. 


Hemali: In January, we started getting refunds. So people were calling from us and our clients and they were telling that, no, Dubai is not safe, so we want our refund. 


And we gave them refund. Nobody knew that something like this is going to happen. Slowly, more refunds were coming. We did not realize, it's okay, it's part of journey. We thought and the whole world got stand still and that's the history is going to be there always those times, whenever I speak to anyone, people will ask me, what do you do? 


And the moment I open my mouth that I am a travel agent, without hearing ahead, they will pass me a condolence message. We know that how you have gone through. I know travel agents are dead. So that is the failure. You would say, here we change that failure into success. So that's what I believe in. Payments. 


Everything was shut down and my support network, that is my support network. I could do impossible thing possible where no travel agents were not supposed to do repatriation flights. And I never heard the word repatriation as flights. I've heard repatriation board of body but never heard repatriation of flights which happens only in times of boards. 


And we could do that impossible thing possible during this pandemic. And we created that as a win win situation for the people whom we repatriated. And we could also survive. We were being featured in the newspaper for that. We were the first one to departure flight to Mumbai and Pune. 


Aamer: It was an amazing feat indeed. And she looks forward to challenges that lay ahead as well. Not many have the vision Hemali: has. She is someone that instantly connects with others around her, has grown into an effective leader and has built a company that would have otherwise looked impossible from the outside. 


And because she already has clear goals in mind we had to ask her what was next for her in this journey. And as we expected, the reply was pretty specific. 


Hemali: I want to represent a bigger travel agency here in Dubai. So that is my dream. What does represent a bigger travel agency mean? When people outside in the world, there are travel agencies, the bigger travel agencies, they need the representation here in Dubai because Dubai is in Limelight and Dubai is a tourism destination. 


So if they want to open a company here, they need to keep staff and it becomes very expensive. So when I am representing them, it becomes cheaper for them and they get a trustworthy partner. Okay, that's a win win situation for both the companies. Right now I am looking out for Thomas and Cook India. They had a representation here but it didn't go well. 


And another thing is that I want to give my service to airlines because people book online on cloud. But somebody has to give service and that's what we have to do. 


Aamer: Hey, if you like that episode, share it with others. You never know how you sharing. It could impact someone in the most difficult of times. And you never know, you might just share something life changing for someone else. And yes, the common drill. Follow us for the latest updates on LinkedIn and Instagram. Zed medium Z-E-D-M-E-D-I-U-M we are here to stay. We promise. And we're bringing a whole lot more for you in the next one. Stay tuned and good bye for now.